Chuck Ragan: singer, songwriter, rocker and Southern gentleman

Chuck Ragan. Photo by Lisa Johnson.

Chuck Ragan is a Southern gentleman. Though he lives in Grass Valley, California, he grew up in the Southern part of America, bouncing from Texas to Georgia, then Louisiana and finally Florida. It was there that he made it big with his band Hot Water Music, which formed in 1993. Hot Water music last recorded in 2012, and since then, he’s largely been focused on his solo career, which started in 2007. During his career, he’s transitioned from punk paragon to alternative Americana acoustic journeyman and cultivated a legion of loyal fans along the way. 

Beyond packed North American shows, his tours became a fan favorite worldwide, touching down in the UK, Europe, Australia, and Scandinavia. Moreover, the likes of Tim McIlrath [Rise Against], Ben Kweller, Laura Jane Grace [Against Me!], Brian Fallon [Gaslight Anthem], Rock Votolato, Ben Nichols [Lucero], and many more excitedly joined him on the road. The jaunt became a bastion for quality music and unforgettable performances for audiences everywhere. 

Strengthening and fortifying his connection to American literature, first pronounced in Hot Water Music’s nod to the Charles Bukowski short story collection of the same name, Ragan penned his first book, The Road Most Traveled. His literary debut collected a compelling series of personal stories and anecdotes. It ultimately serves as both an autobiography and a “how-to” for young musicians and artists of all kinds. 

2016 saw Ragan’s music expand to another realm once again. He personally crafted the soundtrack for the video game, The Flame In The Flood. 

The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito spoke to Ragan who had just landed in Detroit after taking a redeye flight from California. He was gearing up to play later the same evening by going fishing, something that is a passion for him. After Detroit, Ragan said they have a show in Cleveland before playing two shows in Chicago on Saturday, one during the day at the Do Division Street Fest and a night show at Beat Kitchen. 

Photo by Lisa Johnson.

 

CA)  You’re up early today.

RAGAN) Yeah, we’re going fishing. I just took a redeye that left California at 9:30 or something last night, I don’t remember [Laughter].

CA) I’ll get right to it and try not to keep you too long.

RAGAN) No worries at all.

CA) Your last album Till Midnight came out in 2014. Have you been working on new material?

RAGAN) Yeah, always. I’m always writing and stockpiling things. After Till Midnight we actually did another record that kind of went under a lot of people’s radar because it was a soundtrack to a video game. It was a full-length record called The Flame and The Flood. But yeah, I’m looking forward to the next 6 to 8 months, getting some new material down. The past 6 months I was working on a new Hot Water Music record that we just finished. We’re pretty proud of it and are getting ready to release it in September. We’ll be playing Riot Fest in your town in September.

CA) Your last show in Chicago was at City Winery —

RAGAN) Yeah. I love shows there. It’s a great place. Great people, great food. They take care of all the bands that come through there, it’s a good place to be.

CA) You have two shows Saturday — do you have to do anything different to be able to perform twice in one day?

RAGAN) Eat my Wheaties. I don’t mind doubleheaders like that. If we’re going to be that far away from home we rather be working and playing than not. It can be tough on the voice sometimes depending on what type of sound systems people are running, but for the most part it’s not much different.

CA) I saw your rider. It seems that you’re big on the organic food and vegetables. That’s something that you really pay attention to?

RAGAN) I do my best. I think it’s definitely important to eat well when you’re on the road. Being on the road is always tough. It can be a challenge to sleep properly and eat properly. I spent a lot of years doing the exact opposite.

CA) Is that what prompted your 2012 book, The Road Most Travelled? 

RAGAN) That came about because I was working with a publisher working on a different book that never came to fruition. It was more or less a book that contained a ton of old lyrics that didn’t make it into any songs. It was going to be more of a poetry book really. But it was dragging, or I should say I was dragging because I have a tendency to have too many plates spinning. In the middle of it I was being interviewed by a magazine in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In the interview, the reporter asked me what the most valuable thing I ever learned on the road was. I answered the question and after the interview I found myself asking myself the same question and came up with all types of answers. The next day I was still thinking about it and I realized that anyone who has travelled a lot can answer that question a thousand times over and still come up with different things that you learned along the way that are valuable. I was thinking about people that I travel with, people that I’ve worked with over the years. Some of them, you’re not going to see their names on the marquee or the t-shirts or records. I’m talking about bus drivers and tour managers, hotel managers, techs and roadies. To me, their stories and the knowledge that they picked up is just as valuable as the guy that you have heard of. So I put something together, not only for us but more importantly for the younger generation that wants to take a stab at living a life on the road. To help them avoid the mistakes that we made and some of the pitfalls and so they can realize the same glories that we’ve found.

 

Photo by Lisa Johnson.

 

CA) Was the story-telling in the book similar to the process of songwriting for you?

RAGAN) Not so much. I guess I looked at it in a different way.

CA) Your punk influence is often cited. What punk bands inspired you?

RAGAN) When I was a kid, I grew up in a conservative, old-school Southern Baptist household so if it wasn’t bluegrass or cajun music it got shut down pretty quick in my house. I got into skateboarding at a young age and that’s what got me into different music, be it punk rock or metal or just rock and roll. My buddies would give me cassette tapes and a lot of the time I didn’t know who the bands were. I had all these blank tapes that didn’t have any gnarly covers that my mom would have thrown away if she saw them. Later, I’d be at a friend’s house and they would put on a record and I’d be like, ‘I know this, I have this.’ It would be bands like Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and the Sex Pistols of course. In those early days it was everything from Bad Brains to CCR to Tom Waits, Metallica, Beastie Boys. Just a hodgepodge.

CA) You’re a great story-teller along the lines of Bruce Springsteen and when I’ve played your music to people who isn’t familiar with you they have said that you remind them of Bruce. Is he someone you enjoy?

RAGAN) Absolutely, that’s The Boss. I can’t say I’ve ever met somebody who doesn’t. That man’s work has always been an inspiration.

CA) Obviously the country and bluegrass that you also grew up with has been a big part of your sound as well, right?

RAGAN) Yes, for sure. I was born in Texas and my family moved around quite a bit. My father was a professional golfer and we went from Texas to southern Georgia, to Lafayette, Louisiana and then to Sarasota, Florida. I grew up in a Southern Baptist household where there was always a lot of gospel music, old traditional songs. My family also loved bluegrass. My mother’s side of the family were Cajun people so we listened to a lot of Creole, a lot of Cajun music. My papa (grandfather) was an accordion player and some of my earliest memories of music was my grandfather playing according and my grandmother sitting next to him, banging a tambourine off her knee, singing French songs. Good memories.

CA) Al Scorch will be with you Saturday, right?

RAGAN) Yeah, I love Al.

CA) He’s a local Chicago guy that we’ve talked to before. He played at that City Winery show with you also.

RAGAN) Yes, he did and he burned the place down. He’s fantastic.

CA) When you’re here Saturday are you in and out or do you have time to see some Blues music or something like that?

RAGAN) Man, I wish we did. I’d love to do that but we’re pretty much in and out like the wind on this trip. My wife and I have a baby boy that just turned 2 just a few days ago. I’m traveling a bunch right now, trying to get home for a few days before hitting the road again for some shows in the Northeast.

CA) I know you’re going fishing this morning. Do you still work as a fishing guide back home?

RAGAN) I do. When I’m home it’s pretty full-time. I run a couple different boats back home, mostly all fly fishing trips, chasing resident trout and migratory steelhead to largemouth and smallmouth bass, and stripers.

CA) What lake are you fishing this morning?

RAGAN) That’s top secret. [Laughter]

 

Chuck Ragan will play a 45-minute set at the Subterranean West Stage at the Do Division Street Fest Saturday at 6:15 and then plays Beat Kitchen at 10:30 p.m. 

 

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